What is cognitive dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is a powerful tool which can be used to motivate us in various ways. As a concept, it is best explained through an example. Think about the following statement- ‘it is important that people give blood so that blood banks can be adequately supplied’. This is probably something that you agree with. Now ask yourself- do I regularly give blood? If you are reading this and do, you should feel pretty good about yourself . However, if you’re reading this you do not then you’re probably feeling a slight sense of unease. This response is the essence of cognitive dissonance – a feeling that one aspect of ourselves does not fit with another. But how does it work, and how can we harness it?
How does cognitive dissonance work?
Researchers such as Leon Festinger recognise that we have a drive towards internal balance or ‘consistency’1. Cognitive dissonance is a result of an inconsistency between one aspect of ourselves and another. When we have a thought (giving blood is important) and a behaviour (we do not give blood) which don’t balance, we experience cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance can involve a imbalance between past and present behaviours or what we believe and what we do. It can also be caused by what we think/do and what other people (that we like) think about those actions. When we experience cognitive dissonance we also experience a drive to restore balance. In the context of the example above, this would involve either deciding the giving blood isn’t so important after all (so our attitude matches our original behaviour) or changing our behaviour (so action matches our original attitude).
From theory to practice…
Cognitive dissonance is a pretty simple principle, but one which can have quite powerful impacts on motivation. If there is a a particular behaviour you want to be motivated to achieve, you are likely to shift your attitude in favour of it. Perhaps more usefully, if you strongly endorse a set of attitudes then you are likely to also be highly motivated to behave in line with them. Equally, if we behave in particular way in the past response the situation, we reduce cognitive dissonance by behaving the same way again (this is part of the reason we recognise the importance of having have virtuous cycles of forming positive habits, or vicious cycles where for negative ones). It is a powerful tool – cognitive dissonance has been shown to influence our behaviours in all sorts of areas, ranging from the very public (i.e. how we speak to people of different ethnic backgrounds) to the relatively private (such as condom use)2,3 – so how do we make the most if it?
To use cognitive dissonance, try and use your attitudes to shape behaviour, and create situations where you try and avoid generating dissonance. How do we do this? The attitudes that we are most likely to remember and think about, and be motivated to avoid cognitive dissonance around, are those driven by our core values and beliefs. So, one way of harnessing cognitive dissonance is thinking about how the behaviour you are aiming for is in line with these (or how other behavioural choices are not congruent with your belief system). For example, if I want to try and give more to charity because I felt as important. So, I may reflect on how this behaviour is linked him with my spiritual beliefs. I may also reflect on the fact that not engaging in giving behaviour may challenge this important part my self-concept.
A little help from my friends…
We can also bring in other people to help us. In general, we are very aware of what other people think of us. We also have a drive to encourage other people to see us as internally consistent in our thoughts and behaviours. Because of this, we can motivate ourselves by making ourselves accountable for actions other people. One example of this is the practice of ‘book-ending’. When you book-end, you find someone you trust will hold you accountable to your actions and whose positive regard you value. You then discuss a plan of action with that person and agree a particular set of behaviours that you will undertake (this is a form of goalsetting, which also helps motivation). You then fix a timescale in which you report back to that person to let them know how the behaviours turned out. This effectively increases the amount of cognitive dissonance that you incur if you fail to follow through in several ways. First, you would generate dissonance between your attitude and behaviour. Secondly, there would be dissonance between your behaviour and what you said you would do, and finally there’s distance between your behaviour towards the respected other and your attitudes towards them. If you are aware of these pressures were much more likely to try and avoid the dissonance by behaving in the way intended.
Not a cure-all…
Cognitive dissonance is a conscious process – we need to realise what our attitudes and values are, and recognise the way were behaving at the same time to generate dissonance (or decide to avoid it). So, anything you can do to remind yourself of your attitudes or values (particularly when in the situation where the decision as to what behaviour to pursue takes place) is likely to increase your desire to behave as you would like. So, to take the spiritual example above, if you have something which reminds you of your belief system present when making a decision then you are more likely to trigger that set of values, and motivate yourself to behave in line with them.
It’s worth remembering the cognitive dissonance (like everything) is not a quick fix nor a ‘hack’ which will impact your behavioural in all situations. In particular, dissonance requires some level of conscious/reflective thought- when you’re ‘in the moment’ and being driven by powerful emotions, when you’re low on energy which makes it hard to self-regulate, or when you simply behaving on autopilot, cognitive dissonance will have less of an effect on motivation.
How can I use this information to improve my motivation?
- Recognise the link between the values that drive you, your attitudes and your subsequent behaviours.
- Think about how your behaviours are congruent or in-congruent with your attitudes and values.
- Use visible reminders of the attitudes underpinning the behaviours you are motivated to undertake.
- Increase the level of dissonance that will be generated by publicly stating your goals (perhaps by book ending).
- Make sure you retain some flexibility – too much cognitive dissonance can make you feel negative.
- Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203–210. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0041593 ↩
- Son Hing, L. S., Li, W., & Zanna, M. P. (2002). Inducing hypocrisy to reduce prejudicial responses among aversive racists. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 71–78. https://doi.org/10.1006/JESP.2001.1484 ↩
- Stone, J., Aronson, E., Crain, A.L., Winslow, M.P., & Fried, C.B. (1994). Inducing hypocrisy as a means of encouraging young adults to use condoms. Persoanlity and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 116-28. https://doi.org/ 10.1177/0146167294201012 ↩